Top 5 Pieces of Environmental Legislation

Despite stalled climate, clean energy bills, Congress has acted in the past.

July 1, 2010, 5:38 PM

July 2, 2010— -- Despite the gushing nudge provided by the Gulf oil spill, the Waxman-Markey climate bill passed last year by the House of Representatives languishes in the Senate.

The Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act looks to be DOA.

All this D.C. gridlock got us thinking: Let's remind our elected officials and their constituents of the major pieces of environmental legislation that Congresses Past were able to pass.

We're not even talking about the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, or the Toxic Substances Control Act.

Our five most effective pieces of environmental legislation are the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Montreal Protocol, the Clean Water Act, and Reformation Plan No. 3 of 1970.

Because of these laws, the health of Americans and the environment they inhabit have dramatically improved.

Clean Air Act

By the time President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the first Clean Air Act in December 1963—it was later amended in 1966, 1970, 1977, and 1990—America's air had been under siege for decades.

"It's safe to say that our air was bad and getting worse," says Frank O'Donnell, President of Clean Air Watch, a nonprofit environmental organization. "Many cities were choking in smog."

There was the 1948 incident in Donora, Pennsylvania. On Halloween night, an unseasonable temperature inversion blocked emissions from a zinc blast furnace. A week later, the "Donora Death Fog," as it would come to be known, had finally vanished—but not before 20 people were killed and more than 600 were diagnosed with serious illness.

There was the entire month of October 1954 in Los Angeles, when the worst in a string of smog attacks blanketed the region. Planes were diverted from airports. Children stayed home from school. Over 2,000 automobile accidents occurred in a single day. Two years later, a survey of L.A. doctors found that almost 95 percent had treated the "smog complex"—irritated eyes, cough, nausea, and headaches.

America's air needed a shower.

It got one with the Clean Air Act, the principle law addressing air pollution, including carbon dioxide emissions.

"Climate change aside, it can be documented that the air today is considerably cleaner," says O'Donnell. "The Clean Air Act is still a work in progress, but there is no doubt that it has saved lives."

One of the major provisions of the 1970 amendment was the phase-out of lead-based gasoline. By 1995, the percentage of U.S. children with elevated levels of lead in their blood had dropped from 88 percent to 4 percent, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The good news didn't stop there.

In 2002, a report by the Journal of American Medical Association credited the act's automobile emission regulations with reducing carbon monoxide related deaths, saving 11,700 lives between 1968 and 1998.

And what of the future of the act?

O'Donnell says that as the standards of pollution measurement improve, so, too, should the act. "The Clean Air Act was and is meant to be a dynamic statute. It is not supposed to freeze in time."

Indeed, a living breathing document for a living breathing society.

Hundreds of Species Saved by Endangered Species Act

Endangered Species Act

The peregrine falcon. The key deer. The grizzly bear. The red wolf. No, this isn't a character lineup for the next Dreamworks animated movie. It's a fraction of the hundreds of species whose populations have increased because of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

"It is one of the few laws that expressly values non-human life," says Peter Galvin, conservation director, Center for Biological Diversity.

In a sense, the ESA can be traced back to June 20, 1782, when the Continental Congress voted to make the bald eagle the symbol of a nascent country. America's founding fathers chose a bird of majestic beauty and great strength—and which would be on the precipice of extinction (thank you very much, DDT) a little more than 150 years later. Enter Congress, which passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940.

Under this heightened consciousness, Congress acted fast three decades later when another bird, the whooping crane, flew too close to the edge of extinction.

Galvin says that the greatest success of the ESA—signed into law by President Richard Nixon on December 28, 1973—is that "no species has gone extinct after being listed."

In simple terms, the act contains two classifications—endangered species and threatened species. The first are at the brink of extinction now. The latter are likely to be at the brink in the near future.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, all of the act's protections are provided to endangered species. Many, but not all, of those protections also are available to threatened species.

The Environmental Protection Agency's sister law, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, was signed in 1972, and was the world's first law that mandated an ecosystem approach to marine resource management.

Today, the primary threat to the ESA has been there from its inception: pushback from well-funded land development and property rights activists.

"The future is better funding, more adequate enforcement, and more proactive efforts to get ahead of the curve," says Galvin.

Montreal Protocol

Signed in 1987, revised seven times, and ratified by 196 nations, the Montreal Protocol—officially known as the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer—has been hailed as "perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date," by Kofi Anan, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations.

In scientific terms, it phased out ozone-depleting substances, namely chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs). This, in turn, prevents harmful ultraviolet radiation—invisible rays that are part of the sun's energy—from entering earth's atmosphere.

In layman's terms, it got rid of a bunch of bad stuff used in everyday life; CFCs were found in air conditioning systems, fire control solvents and hair spray canisters.

1.5 million cases of skin cancer. 330,000 cancer deaths. 129 million cases of cataracts. That's a tally of human suffering the world is avoiding by implementing this treaty, according to the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development.

Montreal Protocol Act Could Be Preventing 11 Billion Tons of CO2 from Entering Earth's Atmosphere

"You wouldn't have been able to go outside without getting sunburned in ten minutes," says Durwood Zaelke, president, Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, considering current atmospheric conditions had their been no Montreal Protocol. Zaelke's answer sounds like hyperbole, but it's in alignment with a 2009 NASA simulation.

So that's what the Montreal Protocol did for humans.

Equally impressive?

The one-two punch it landed on behalf of the environment.

In the 1970s, chemists theorized that CFC molecules could be split apart by solar radiation to produce chlorine atoms, which could, in time, destroy the ozone. Expectedly, the aerosol and halocarbon industries pushed back, calling the theory "science fiction." Further studies bolstered the hypothesis, and in 1985 British scientists discovered an "ozone hole" over Antarctica. The report, published in Nature, catalyzed public sentiment. Something had to be done. Two years later it was, with the passage of the Montreal Protocol.

Because of the phase out—which is 98 percent complete, according to Zaelke—the ozone layer has not grown thinner since 1998. However, since CFCs have a long atmospheric life, the ozone layer will not fully recover until "…after 2050," says Zaelke.

As an added bonus, the treaty has helped slow climate change.

CFCs and HCFCs have heat-trapping properties that are significantly more powerful than C02. Because of this, it has been estimated that the Montreal Protocol is preventing 11 billion tons of CO2 from entering Earth's atmosphere every year—which is on par with delaying climate catastrophe by 7 to 12 years.

Clean Water Act

Ask an expert about the state of America's fresh water systems—lakes, rivers, streams—in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and here's the blunt answer:

"Basically, they were a toilet," says Jennifer Clary, a policy analyst at nonprofit organization Clean Water Action.

"The rivers of this country were sewers!" says Stuart Udall, former Secretary of the Interior, in American Experience's "Earth Days," a PBS special that premiered on Earth Day 2010.

One river, in particular, was on also on fire.

Yes, we're looking at you, Cuyahoga River—or at least the filthy, oily, gaseous 1969 version of you.

On June 22, 1969, an oil slick on Ohio's Cuyahoga River caught fire, drawing countrywide eyeballs. With tongue in cheek, a Federal Water Pollution Control Administration official told Time magazine, "The lower Cuyahoga has no visible signs of life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes."

"We're a very visual society," says Clary. "That fire really sparked action. It was really a grassroots call for change."

Against this murky backdrop, President Nixon signed the Clean Water Act in 1972, the primary federal law addressing water quality standards for the nation's waterways.

The act has been amended many times, most significantly in 1987 to ramp up controls on toxic pollutants, and in 1990 to more adequately address oil spills after the Exxon Valdez disaster.

Study: Water Quality Has Improved But Population Growth, Climate Change Hinder Act's Effectiveness

Most importantly, the act puts the onus on states to develop plans to protect their watersheds from non-point pollution. As opposed to point pollution, such as a factory, which enters the environment from a single location, non-point pollution sources, like a cornfield, cover a large area and are harder to control.

On some levels, the Clean Water Act has been a success. Gone are the days of river fires, and the legislation has stopped countless millions of pounds of pollution from entering our waterways.

However, there's still work to be done.

In 2002, on the 30th anniversary of the act's passage, the EPA found that 39 percent of the rivers, 45 percent of the lakes, and 51 percent of the estuaries monitored were contaminated.

A 2009 comprehensive study conducted by Duke University concluded that while water quality has improved, "population growth, limited jurisdiction, and unforeseen water stressors, such as emerging contaminants and climate change" nevertheless plague the effectiveness of the act.

Reorganization Plan No. 3 of 1970

On a list with such eco-heavyweights as the Montreal Protocol, the Clean Air and Water Acts, and the Endangered Species Act, this oddly named piece of legislation seems out of place, no?

Think again.

Signed on July 9, 1970, by President Nixon, this ruling gave birth to the Environmental Protection Agency.

A nice little ancillary benefit was that it also established the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Reorganization Plan No. 3 grew out of the National Environmental Policy Act, which Nixon symbolically signed on January 1, 1970—to signify that the 1970s would be the environmental decade.

Six months later, Nixon decided that all the loose ends of the U.S. government's attempt to get ahead of the environmental curve needed to fall to one single, independent organization.

"Our national government today is not structured to make a coordinated attack on the pollutants which debase the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land that grows our food," said Nixon.

The EPA's success stories are too many too enumerate, but if you want to sample the crème de la crème, here they are.

In the 20 years since the EPA launched the Energy Star program to assist consumers with energy-efficient products, Americans have saved $16 billion on their energy bills.

From 1970 to 1990, lead reductions due to the EPA's Clean Air Act programs prevented 205,000 deaths and the loss of 10.4 million I.Q. points in children.

In terms of smog-pollutants, 2010's cars are 98 percent cleaner than the gas-guzzlers on the road in 1970 when the EPA was born.

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